THE GREAT PECOS MISSION, 1540-2000
To the Reader
Thousands of visitors each year view the earth-covered rubble of the Great Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico and the towering red walls of the roofless mission church that served it. The ruins, about twenty miles east of Santa Fe, are protected and interpreted by the National Park Service. Yet the story of the mission and its interaction with the native people is seldom told in any detail. It’s a story that needs to be shared. This is my attempt.
A glass saucer lay in a case in a small archaeological museum near my childhood home. It held a section of human backbone with an obsidian arrowhead embedded between the vertebrae. As a youngster, I spent many hours contemplating these remnants of human conflict, wondering who those people were, how they lived, and what brought them together. They were from Pecos.
I hung over the shoulders of curators mending baskets and rebuilding colorful pots from multiple fragments. I breathed down the neck of the artist creating a diorama of the pueblo. I struggled to read the accompanying descriptions by Coronado’s chronicler in 1540. I listened to Dr. Kidder, smoking his curved-stemmed pipe and telling stories of his excavations and exploits at Pecos and elsewhere to my enthralled family. This was in Andover, Massachusetts, where the Robert S. Peabody Archeological Museum (not the larger Peabody Museum at Harvard) sponsored the Pecos work.
And so, Pecos entered my consciousness early. It was surely one of the factors that led me to a lifelong enthusiasm for archaeology, anthropology, history, the Spanish Southwest, intercultural relations, and many forms of experiential education. It led me to advanced degrees in Spanish language and heritage (Columbia University, MA, 1950) and—later—Divinity, focusing on missions (Yale Divinity School, M.Div., 1977). And along the way there were many courses and hands-on experiences building on all of these areas.
Since 1980 in Santa Fe, I have been researching and providing countless mini-courses, talks and tours, generally to adults, about the heritage of the Southwest. Naturally, Pecos is one of my favorite places.
For five years, 1998-2003, I served as a National Park volunteer at Pecos. I particularly delighted in guiding visitors through the ruins of pueblo and mission, trying to help them “see” the ancient buildings and the dramatic events that impacted the people over the years. But there was never enough time for the stories I yearned to share. Some of them are now in this book.
Outstanding among the books I have found helpful in understanding the role of the mission at Pecos is Kiva, Cross and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico 1540–1840, by John Kessell (1979, National Park Service). This is a marvelously detailed and vivid account of the context and individuals involved in the Pecos story. But it is a huge book and overwhelming for the casual reader. I refer to it often on the following pages. I’m exceedingly grateful to Dr. Kessell for his extensive research and his ability to breathe life into those far off events.
Though a few other books are listed at the end of this volume, the massive amounts of general reading about the history and heritage of New Mexico presently available are too many to even begin to list. To which I contribute my own personal contacts, experience, and observations.
As I get caught up in some of the events described, my imagination expands reported facts, but in ways that I hope are consistent with the context. And a continuing dialogue with certain characters, though only in my head, often brings unexpected and enriching insights.
I hope these pages will encourage you to learn more about these amazing people and events. And I invite you to join me as we roam the ruins at what is now the Pecos National Historical Park. Come along.
Around the year 1300 scattered communities in the upper Pecos Valley came together to build a new town. They made house blocks three, four, sometimes five stories high out of the abundant local rock, and hauled roof timbers from the nearby mountains. They cemented the walls with mud from the creek, plastered and whitewashed them inside and out. The house blocks surrounded a large rectangular plaza and were stepped back with terraced corridors outside each doorway. Light ladders connected each level. They could be pulled up easily in times of danger, and there were no ground-level entries to the buildings. Narrow gateways controlled access to the plaza, and a low boundary wall surrounded the whole.
The new town was called Cicuye, which meant something like City of Stone.
Cicuye was situated on a low ridge, easy to defend, with broad views in all directions. A small stream, now known as Glorieta Creek, flowed through the narrow valley between the ridge and the sheer cliffs of the mesa to the west, providing water for domestic use and space for many farm plots. A large field rolled off to the east, toward the river now known as the Pecos and the hills beyond. To the north rose the mountain range now known as the Sangre de Cristos. To the south and east the way opened to the Great Plains.
The Cicuye people grew strong and prosperous. They dominated the ancient pass between the plains and the valley of the Rio Grande. Their traders traveled far and wide and hosted great trade fairs each fall in the field below the town. Their farmers cultivated the rich cropland along the creek and by the more distant river, and produced an abundance of corn, beans and squash. Their hunters roamed the hills, plains, mesas, and mountains in search of deer, elk, bear, buffalo, and other food animals. Their craftsmen fashioned quantities of useful, ornamental and sacred objects, from materials at hand or bartered, some for their own use, some for trade. Their warriors were fierce, respected, and feared throughout the area.
Cicuye was at its peak when Coronado’s expedition came through in 1540-41, and fifty years later when the first colonists settled in the area now known as New Mexico. An estimated two thousand people lived at the place the Spaniards referred to as Pecos, which also means “City of Stone” in a different pueblo language. The Spaniards referred to all the native agricultural villages in the area as “pueblos,” which simply means “village” in Spanish. There were some sixty of them scattered along the Rio Grande Valley and vicinity, each independent and speaking different languages. Pecos was one of the “biggest and best” that the first expeditions encountered, and it was a pueblo to be respected and reckoned with.
A major purpose of the original settlement of New Mexico was to Christianize the native people, thereby saving their heathen souls, and making them productive citizens of the great Spanish empire. During the early years of colonization, attention and limited resources were concentrated on the pueblos along the Rio Grande. It wasn’t until 1616 that the Franciscan missionaries began serious work at Pecos. By 1625, the massive adobe church—the awesome pride of the region—and the connected convento were completed and the work of the mission was in full swing. It brought good priests and bad, saints and celebrations, peaches and wheat, mules and tools, sheep and chickens, protection and exploitation, change and conflict—and new ways of thinking about life. Some Pecos people became nominal Christians, others resisted.
This huge church was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Spaniards returned in 1692, and eventually the original church was replaced by a smaller one nestled within the old foundations. It was completed in 1717. By that time, the population of the pueblo had diminished and the mission work had lost much of its energy. In 1838, the few remaining residents left their ancestral home to join their linguistic cousins at Jemez Pueblo across the western mountains.
Like the pueblo structures themselves, the church and convento deteriorated, helped along by recycling anything useful and pot hunting by local Hispanic settlers and travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. Only ruins were left. Serious archaeology began in 1915, which led to renewed understanding of the importance of the site and its protection, first as a State Monument (1934), then as a National Monument (1967) and since 1990 as a National Historical Park.
For centuries, the mission has been the heart of the Pecos Pueblo, shaping and reshaping the lives of the people. Its powerful spiritual presence has hovered over the area from 1540 to this present day. But its stories are mostly buried in historical tomes, in memories, or forgotten.
The following pages attempt to recapture some of the individuals and events relating to the Pecos mission; the contexts, achievements, frustrations and conflicts; the rich swirl of cultures in collision and transition; and the legacy nurtured within the now roofless red walls.